The godsend of the granting of compassionate release to William Underwood today is a matter of preparation and persistence meeting opportunity. The blessing is the story of a family that never gave up. Lawyers who were relentless. The power of strange bedfellows. And it is a story of the constant demand for justice.
William Underwood is a devoted father of four, a grandfather and a former music impresario who promoted, managed and jumpstarted the careers of top R&B and pop stars of the 80s and 90s. He was arrested in 1988 on drug and conspiracy charges, and sentenced to a concurrent 20-year sentence and life without parole.
In the words of U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Stein, “Underwood, currently 67 years old and in the thirty-third year of his sentence, has now spent half his life in federal prison. The difference between these two halves could not be more pronounced … Underwood has … been a manifestly model inmate, a mentor to countless young men in custody, and an active and devoted father and grandfather, all while under the specter of a life-without-parole sentence. His positive influence on younger inmates has caught the attention of Third Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, who wrote … in 2019 to thank him for ‘making a difference in the lives of people around you’, … and Senator Cory Booker, who has advocated for Underwood’s release since meeting him at FCI Fairton in 2016.”
With deliberate indifference the Department of Justice categorically opposed Mr. Underwood’s petition for compassionate release. However, Judge Stein aptly recognized the remarkable rehabilitation Mr. Underwood has accomplished, combined with the deadly impact of the extraordinary COVID-19 pandemic, and granted his motion to reduce sentence to time served. Today’s critical decision comes two weeks after Mr. Underwood tested positive for COVID-19. The judge stated, “In light of defendant’s exceptional record of rehabilitation and service over this three decades in federal custody, as well as the particularized dangers posed to him by contracting the novel coronavirus, the Court finds that ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ exist for a sentence reduction.” The judge was also moved by the fact that Mr. Underwood was incarcerated more than three decades “without an infraction for so much as an unkempt cell or speaking back to a prison employee.”
The Underwood Family has been waiting for this moment for over three decades. For the past ten years we waged a vigorous campaign, successfully galvanizing a groundswell of support from the public, along with professionals in the music and entertainment industries, scholars, civil rights and conservative leaders, formerly incarcerated mentees, and over 70,000 signatures calling for his release in an online petition. Although no one could have predicted a health pandemic, we were primed when the opportunity, however horrifying, arose, to file a motion for compassionate release in court.
I will never underestimate the beauty of how puzzle pieces fit perfectly together. In that vein I am grateful for the long-standing support of Mark Holden, who connected the family to Marc Greenwald and Derek Shaffer of the stellar law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, who over the past eight months, brought this 33-year battle across the finish line with the filing of the successful Motion for Sentence Reduction. I am likewise unconditionally appreciative for the unwavering support of Alice Marie Johnson, who herself was serving a life without parole sentence until her release in 2018 after 22 years of imprisonment. And I applaud the pivotal roles that organizations such as The Sentencing Project, the Open Society Foundations, the ACLU, Can-Do Clemency and other organizations as well as formerly incarcerated individuals that make up the Justice Roundtable have played over the years.
But most of all, my heart goes out to the Underwood children themselves – Anthony, Ebony, Mikole and Justin, now all adults, who bore the brunt of 33 years of anguish, literally, serving time on the outside while their father was buried behind bars on the inside. Judge Stein states, “Underwood’s clear positive influence on each of his children bears particular emphasis. As adults, his four children maintain diverse, successful careers, and their father’s mentorship and guidance has most certainty been a significant factor in their lives.” Ebony, in particular, successfully started an organization, We Got Us Now, to highlight the plight of children of incarcerated parents.
Judge Stein concluded, “In light of Underwood’s exemplary record over the last three decades; his consequential mentorship of young men and contribution to a ‘culture of responsibility’ in federal prison; and his commendable efforts in raising and supporting his children and grandchildren from behind bars, the Court finds that by any measure, Underwood’s good deeds exceed the bounds of what we consider rehabilitation and amount to extraordinary and compelling reasons meriting a sentence reduction.”
What better January 15th Martin Luther King birthday gift is there than the gift of freedom from incarceration!
by Nkechi Taifa, Esq.,
Underwood Family Legal Counsel, and author of Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice